(Mini) Van Life: The Ideal Adventure Vehicle?

For those of us that get inspired by the social media accounts of pro athletes and adventurers with seemingly no responsibilities other than keeping their gas tank full to get to the next destination, the idea of van life can seem like a pipe dream. Particularly, in getting past that image, we start to think about those pesky things like jobs, bills, insurance, and everything else that doesn’t fit well into a custom-made white pine compartment next to a deep cycle battery.

The romantic idea of getting work done via coffee shop Wi-Fi, so that you can spend the morning or afternoon playing in the outdoors in some remote corner of the U.S., is both extremely appealing and difficult to realize. As a mechanical engineer, my current job keeps me pretty well tied to my desk, so I have to capitalize on my free time outside of normal working hours. On the bright side, between Friday afternoon and Monday morning every single week, my wife and I have 63 hours of opportunity. 

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Stage One: The Old Standards

Over the past few years, we figured out how to make the most out of a weekend trip. If we had to pay for a hotel every time we went away, we wouldn’t go very often. For a while, we would travel in the most cliché, outdoorsy-couple vehicle you could buy: a Subaru.

Don’t get me wrong, I love our Subaru, but it would require us to either tent camp or cram ourselves into the back with the seats folded down, which left no room for any of our actual gear. Every night and morning required shuffling gear between the front and back seats. Doing this in the winter would also add snow into the equation. The Subaru is great to drive, but not great to sleep in, especially with two full-grown adults, so we needed another option.

The next step was a Ford Ranger, or another small pickup truck. It has a six-foot bed, and if you add a cap, you have a perfect bubble to make a sleeping compartment. The aftermarket is flush with pickup truck campers and all sorts of accessories to turn your truck bed into a five-star hotel, but ours had 220,000 miles on it and was not as reliable as it once was.

We spent quite a few nights sleeping under its drafty and leaky cap, and it worked, but we decided it wasn’t worth spending the money and effort to fully build out into a camper. That put us back at square one, looking for a daily driving replacement that could still moonlight as an adventure camper.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Not What I Had in Mind

I entertained visions of big 4WD lifted vans, with all sorts of custom cabinetry and expedition-ready equipment. But, when I remembered I would have to drive this back and forth to my job every day, I came to my senses and realized the van I wanted was not what I needed. I was looking for a mobile bed with room for gear, not a mobile apartment.

So, I channeled my inner engineer and created an exhaustive spreadsheet that listed all types of automobiles: full-size cargo vans, pickup trucks, wagons, crossovers, SUVs, and even the dreaded minivan. And, once I ran the numbers, my fate was sealed. If I were going to buy the best vehicle to suit our needs, a minivan was it.

Although I was hesitant at first, My wife and I brought home a used Dodge Grand Caravan, and from there, I got a sleeping platform designed and built. About $90 and some sawdust later, we had a car that could transport four people and then convert to sleep two comfortably, without having to do the gear shuffle. With bike racks and a cargo box on the roof, and a set of snow tires for winter, we were ready for four seasons of adventure.

Hitting the Road

After a few short weekend trips, the van’s first real test came when the holiday stars aligned and both my wife and I found ourselves with over a week of free time between Christmas and New Year’s. We quickly decided that, because the East Coast was still a bit warm, we needed to head to Ouray, Colorado, to open up our ice climbing season at the Ouray Ice Park.

We soon realized that the cargo space underneath the bed was truly cavernous, and in addition to our ice climbing equipment, our backcountry ski gear, as well as our cross-country skis and multiple kitchen sinks, fit, as well—all without any extra baggage fees!

After a marathon driving session across the Midwest, only stopping for gas and bathroom breaks and to catch a few hours of sleep at a rest stop, we made it to the Colorado border. We ventured through the mountain passes of the front range and down into the snowy San Juans. The combination of snow tires and common sense never left me wishing I had 4WD.

We made it into Ouray in a snowstorm and were soon swinging tools into the farmed ice of Box Canyon. After a few hours of climbing, meeting new people, and running into some people from our climbing gym back in NJ, we headed back to our mobile hotel room to warm up and relax in the local hot springs.

Ouray was a pretty amazing place, and being able to travel there without worrying about renting a cabin or hotel room (all of which were full) made traveling much easier. In fact, we enjoyed the town so much that we decided to stay for an extra day of ice climbing before visiting friends in Breckenridge for New Year’s Eve and backcountry skiing. No hotel reservation? No problem.

Although we were tempted to call in dead to work, and just keep living out of our van indefinitely, the big, ugly “responsibilities” thing loomed over us. We turned back east for another marathon of nonstop, 22 MPG driving and made it home in time to go to sleep and then commute the unpacked van to work the next day.

When all’s said and done, there is no magic wand or silver bullet that lets us live a perfectly balanced life between work and the outdoors. It’s a matter of identifying the opportunities and being flexible enough to take advantage of the time we get between all of the things that happen in our fast-paced lives. However, I am convinced that the minivan has been marketed to the wrong people. Soccer moms can step aside—the minivan is for the adventurer in all of us.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain